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PostPosted: Mon May 13, 2024 8:31 am 

Joined: Sun Jan 04, 2009 9:33 pm
Posts: 320
Location: Old Northwest (Michigan)
Fellow Sharpshooters,

Ron S. Coddington has released a new episode of his “Life on the Civil War Research Trail” series entitled: “The Dimick Rifle” and “the Regiment of the West”. Here is his introduction:

Americans followed the sport of target shooting with rapt attention in the 19th century. One of the most memorable matches occurred in Covington, Ky., in April 1848. The event spotlighted two of the country’s leading marksmen: Hiram C. Berdan and Horace E. Dimick. When the shooting ended, the upstart Berdan, 23, beat the veteran Dimick, (35)”.

Both Dimick and Berdan would go on to invent rifles that would bear their names, as well as being associated with three of the most famous Union regiments of the Civil War: the 1st and 2nd United States Sharpshooters and the Western Sharpshooters. Mr. Coddington does a fine job covering the Dimick/WSS connection. But there’s some tantalizing questions that Mr. Coddington didn’t address.

Why was Hiram Berdan in Covington Kentucky??

After attending Hobart College in New York, Berdan apprenticed at Joseph Hall’s Rochester NY threshing machine shop. He temporarily moved back to his family’s home in Plymouth, Michigan where, on October 9, 1847, he received a patent for an improved threshing machine.

Berdan next moved to Chicago to open his own business that manufactured and licensed his threshing machines throughout the Midwest, (including Maryland and Pennsylvania). Berdan ran advertisements in local newspapers and by 1851, invented a “Cylinder and Concave for shelling corn”, that could be included with a new threshing machine “for a small extra cost”.

It is likely, that in addition to demonstrating his threshing machines to prospective communities in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky, that Hiram Berdan also pursued his second passion of competitive shooting. According to Cincinnati native, Brian White, in addition to the American marksmen there were large communities of German immigrants who settled along the Ohio River that had their own ‘Schutzen’ tradition that carries down to the present day.

On page 24 of Roy Marcot’s book, Civil War Chief of Sharpshooters, Hiram Berdan, Military Commander and Firearms Inventor, are photographs of four silver trophies (of 12 in the Rosensteel collection at the National Museum at Gettysburg Battlefield) that Hiram Berdan won in pre-War shooting competitions. Unfortunately, Marcot didn’t list where and when the trophies were won, or if one was from the Covington, Kentucky competition.

Among the throng of riflemen and spectators attending the Dimick/Berdan competition, there could have been an inventor, whose name in a few short years, would become inextricably linked with Hiram Berdan’s; Christian Sharps.

In Roy Marcot’s book The Sharps Rifle; The Percussion Era 1848-1866, is the chapter entitled; Christian Sharps Patent of 1848. Marcot wrote: “Sharps worked as a gunsmith in the 1840’s, and four muzzle loading single-shot rifles built by him and pre-dating his 1848 patent model have been identified by the authors. Between 1844 and the spring of 1848, he (Sharps) was living in Cincinnati and working on his patent model. This was the advent of what many recognize as the first truly successful Breechloading firearm”.

Unfortunately, the historical record is silent if Christian Sharps was present at the shooting competition in Covington. I am sure if he had demonstrated his new breechloader before the crowd, it would be his name, not Dimmick/Berdan, that would have been the “big story “.

In early May, 1848, Christian Sharps traveled to Mississippi to demonstrate his newly invented rifle “to military and gentleman and sportsmen in Natchez[i]”. Sharps’ new breechloader, its operation and potential were eagerly described in the May 10th edition of the Mississippi Free Trader, (with the story picked up and republished by the New York Post). Sharps met with Governor (and former Mexican-American war general) John A. Quitman to demonstrate his rifle. Quitman was so impressed he wrote a letter of introduction to his friend, Texas Senator Thomas J. Rusk. Like Quitman, Rusk became an enthusiastic supporter of Sharps’ new breechloader, adding his in his endorsement that the War Department should adopt it for its mounted troops. Rusk’s letter ended with the notice that Sharps was “leaving for Washington” on May 12th.

Arriving in the Capital City, Sharps retained the services of patent attorney, Zenious C. Robbins. The first patent (June 15th) contained errors that were resubmitted on July 5th. On September 12th, Patent #5703 was issued. A year later Robbins assisted an amateur Illinois inventor, Abraham Lincoln, to obtain a patent for his inflation device to refloat steamboats that had run aground.

But back to Ron Coddington’s story;

The only book published about the WSS was written by Lorenzo ‘Ren’ Barker, entitled With the Western Sharpshooters, Michigan Boys of Company D, 66th Illinois. The December 19, 1908 edition of the St. Joseph Saturday Herald contains an interview with Barker about his book:

Mustered in as Birges Western Sharpshooters, they were soon saddled with a state designation: (14th Missouri), then the 66th Illinois Infantry. Distinguishing themselves as skirmishers and sharpshooters at Forts Henry and Donelson, the Sharpshooters reputation as hard hitting fighters peaked when they purchased 16 shot 1860 Henry repeating rifles with their re-enlistment bonuses. Confederate battle lines ‘from Atlanta to the Sea’ melted under the “sheet of flame” from the relentless Henry repeaters.

After the war, Ren Barker moved to Reed City, Michigan where he was editor and proprietor of the Reed City Clarion. He was active in GAR and WSS reunions until his death on November 29, 1915. Ren Barker is buried in Woodland Cemetery, but his Henry rifle, engraved with the battles they fought in, is part of the Michigan Historical Museum and Library ( collection.

The following link is to an original Horace Dimick rifle offered by Rock Island Auctions in 2021;

Bill Skillman
Michigan Companies
Berdan Sharpshooter Survivors Association

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